Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Scotland's soil a 'carbon threat'

Highlands and Islands landscape
Millions of tonnes of carbon is stored in the soils of Scotland

Soils in Scotland store more than 3,000 megatonnes of carbon posing a potential threat to the environment, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has reported.

The government agency has produced a strategy with the aim of protecting areas such as peat lands and reduce the chances of "carbon leakage".

SNH has offered to advise councils on lowering the risk at development sites.

It will also produce guidance on how to minimise soil disturbance during wind farm construction.

A megatonne is one million tonnes and is used to describe large amounts of CO2 emitted by power stations.

It is vitally important that carbon-rich soils remain as long-term sinks rather than becoming sources of greenhouse gases
Susan Davies
SNH director of policy and advice

SNH said carbon stored in Scotland's soils would fill the hold of the world's largest oil tanker, Knock Nevis, more than 6,000 times.

The soils also hold comparatively more carbon than other parts of the UK and Europe, with about 60% being held in deep layers of peat.

Susan Davies, SNH director of policy and advice, said: "Soils have developed over millennia but are increasingly at risk from the direct impacts of land use change which can degrade the soil and release a lot more carbon.

"The carbon stored in organic soils - especially peat - in Scotland is equivalent to more than 180 years of greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland at current emission rates."

She added: "It is vitally important that carbon-rich soils remain as long-term sinks rather than becoming sources of greenhouse gases which occurs when they are drained or damaged."

SNH will work with Forestry Commission Scotland on meeting woodland expansion targets to protect areas from being dug up leading to the release of carbon.

'Paid back'

In 2003, researchers from the University of Aberdeen suggested that peat burning in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have put highly toxic chemicals into the environment for centuries.

Scientists analysed the dioxins in soil samples from 19th Century Scotland and reported that Britain had been exposed to toxins associated with modern waste incinerators since before the industrial revolution.

Three years ago, a wind farm company said greenhouse gases released during the construction of a scheme on peat land would be "paid back" in clean energy within months.

Lewis Wind Power predicted it would take seven months for the turbines it planned for Barvas Moor on the Western Isles to cancel out the CO2 released.

Its proposed wind farm was refused planning permission by the Scottish government.

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